Once a year, when I was in Junior High, the school nurse would take over the PE coach’s office for the day. One by one, we would file in and she would measure our height, have us step on the scale, and finally she would have us take off our tops and face away from her as we bent over to touch our toes. Taking a pen, she would mark each vertebra and then have us stand straight again. Quite frankly, I never really paid much attention to what she was doing – I was just happy I wasn’t out in the gym running laps or embarrassing myself as I attempted to shoot a free-throw.
That changed the last year of Junior High. The nurse hemmed and hawed as I stood in front of her and she placed her hands briefly on my hips, pushing down slightly. After she had me bend over and played connect the dots on my spine, she asked me to put my shirt back on – but stopped me before I could leave the office. “It looks like you have scoliosis, Jana,” she told me with a serious look on her face, “I’m going to give you a note to take home to your parents.”
I’d never heard of scoliosis before – but I soon learned more than I wanted to know. I’ll spare you all of the medical jargon and give you the down and dirty version – scoliosis is when the spine curves side to side, forming a question mark shape (or if there is more than one curve, as in my case, it forms an S-shape). It can cause your shoulders to be uneven, your ribcage to twist, and your hips to be kattywompas – and left untreated and in severe cases, the resulting deformity could cause problems standing, walking, and even breathing – along with severe pain.
The orthopedic surgeon my parents took me to see offered two options: a back brace, worn 24/7 for the remaining years of my adolescence or back surgery to fuse my spine. Nether option sounded appealing, but I couldn’t even conceive going to high school for three years wearing a hard plastic and metal back brace. I was just going into High School! What boy would want to date me? How many judgmental bitches would make fun of me?
The surgery entailed hooking a long, metal rod alongside my spine, jacking that sucker as straight as it would go, and then placing bone chips along the length, which would fuse my spine over the course of nine months. The downside? Well, it WAS major surgery and I would be out of school for 6-8 weeks while I recovered…and then there was the pesky problem of being in a body cast for nine months. For the first three months, it would extend from my chin to my hips (hard to miss) – and then it would be cut down to just under my armpits to my hips for the rest of the time, which would require me to wear loose-fitting maternity clothes to school.
I picked the surgery – it seemed to me that nine months of hideousness was better than three years. Better to bite the bullet and get it over with quickly, never having to deal with it again. Oh, I was so young and naïve – I deal with the consequences of that decision every single day – but when I was 14-years-old, I wasn’t thinking about the future – I was only concerned with the present and my precarious social standing. So, I had the surgery and was soon wrapped in thick plaster with a salad plate sized hole cut out in the middle so that my stomach could expand as I ate. While I was at home recovering, things were tolerable – but once I started to go out in public, I immediately felt like an escapee from the freak show of a traveling circus.
“Ladies and gentlemen – come one, come all! See the incredible bearded woman! Marvel at the human unicorn! Beware the wolf boy! And prepare to be amazed and horrified by Jana, the plaster-girl! Her head and torso are held absolutely rigid by 12-tons of hard cement! Rap your knuckles on her chest…if you DARE!”
People weren’t shy about asking what had happened to me – but if I tried to explain about scoliosis and the back fusing treatment, their eyes would quickly glaze over with incomprehension. So, I decided to simplify the story and, at the same time, ramp it up a notch. The next time a well-meaning stranger asked how I had ended up in a body cast, I put on a serious expression. “Well, I was in Africa on a safari with my family – and it was great seeing all the animals – but then an elephant stepped on me.” I was always rewarded with a loud gasp and a horrified expression – and usually couldn’t keep a straight face for more than thirty seconds. Before long, I had a whole repertoire of catastrophes to pick from: “It was my first time skydiving…and the chute just didn’t open,” “The driver of the garbage truck was attacked by a raccoon who had been asleep in one of the trash cans…and he just veered off the road and right into me,” “The cable on the ski lift just snapped…and I plummeted to the rocks below.”
I never liked my bulky body cast, but I learned to tolerate it as time went on. And it may have saved my life during a car accident that winter when we were T-boned going across an intersection. Instead of my ribs being broken when I was bashed against the door of my sister’s car, my cast protected me and put a large dent in the car door instead. And THAT is a true story – I promise!
Do you think it is acceptable to lie – just for the fun of it? What tall tales have you told when the truth was just too complicated or boring?